Many countries have an entity known as a judicial council, responsible for different aspects of judicial governance, from overseeing the judicial career to promoting professional standards and court efficiency. Recent reform initiatives have focused on ensuring that judicial councils operate transparently, with mechanisms to promote public accountability.
In many countries, judicial councils were created to replace the oversight role of the ministry of justice and to safeguard judicial independence, often after a transition from authoritarian rule. Judicial councils may be created through a constitutional provision or by statute. They may be independent institutions or a subordinate unit of the supreme or constitutional court, as in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Austria.
In some countries, like Peru and Slovenia, councils have authority over all judges. In other countries, such as Bulgaria and Turkey, the authority of the council extends to public prosecutors. There is also a mixed model with an independent judicial council that has authority over lower-level judges but not supreme court justices, such as in Argentina and Latvia.
Council membership can be any combination of levels of judges from different courts, as well as members of political branches, the legal community, scholars, and public figures. Some judicial councils include only judges elected by their peers or through nominations by the executive or parliament. In rare cases, judicial councils exist with no judicial members at all, as in Macedonia where the council consists of respected legal professionals nominated by parliament. A 2018 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers notes that a combination of members from the judiciary, legal profession, and civil society provides external oversight and helps to insulate the council from executive-branch pressure.
Judicial Members of Judicial Councils
- Only lower-level judges (El Salvador)
- Only high-level judges (Canada, Dominican Republic, Netherlands)
- Judges of all levels (Colombia, Portugal, Slovakia)
Nonjudicial Members of Judicial Councils
- Head of the Executive Branch
- Minister of Justice
- Heads of Parliament
- General Prosecutor/Prosecutors
- Law Professors
- Respected Members of Civil Society
Judicial councils may have far-reaching powers, such as overseeing the efficiency and quality of justice. A judicial council’s ability to strengthen the integrity of the judicial branch depends significantly on its power to exercise independent judgment. Councils established by a constitutional provision tend to have greater influence and independence.
Council responsibilities usually include some combination of the duties below:
Judicial CareerMost judicial councils are involved in the judicial selection process; some also have authority over promotion. The Universal Charter of the Judge (Article 9) recommends that selection criteria be clearly spelled out and objective.
Education, Training, & Evaluation
Judicial councils may oversee the national judicial training institute or be responsible for continuing judicial education.
Conduct and Discipline
Some judicial councils with non-judicial members exclude non-judges from voting on matters of discipline and ethics to protect judicial branch independence. In addition to overseeing the conduct and discipline process, some judicial councils investigate or charge judges with disciplinary violations.
Court Administration & Budget
These responsibilities are sometimes transferred from the ministry of justice to a judicial council.
Judicial councils may give advice to the ministry of justice on relevant issues, especially regarding the independence of the judiciary. For example, the Judges’ Council of the United Kingdom may recommend financial priorities for judicial administration and share the judiciary’s views on pay and retirement with the Judicial Appointments Commission. A judicial council might also be asked to produce regular reports on the status of the judiciary and to supervise how certain judicial policies are implemented.
Judicial councils may be tasked with managing the release of information to the public, such as details relating to judicial selection and discipline and information about case schedules and issued decisions.
Judicial Councils from Around the World
The examples below illustrate the many ways a judicial council can be structured, constituted, and assigned responsibilities.
The Judicial Commission of Indonesia is responsible for nominating justices and ad hoc justices of the supreme court to the parliament for approval. It also establishes and maintains the judges’ code of conduct and hears complaints about judicial conduct from the community. The commission has seven members who are appointed by the president with the agreement of the house of representatives. Members are drawn from among former judges, lawyers, legal scholars, and members of the community.
The Council of Supreme Court Justices is the highest deliberative body in the judiciary’s administrative structure. It is composed of all the justices with the chief justice presiding. A resolution of the council requires a quorum of not less than two-thirds of the justices and the consent of the majority of those present. The council decides on consent for the appointment and reappointment of judges; the enactment or revision of supreme court regulations; the collection and publication of judicial precedents; the budget request; and the use of reserve funds. The chief justice may also refer other matters of importance to the council.
The Judicial Service Commission of Kenya was established under the constitution to promote the independence, accountability, and efficiency of the judiciary. Members include the chief justice (who chairs the commission), one high-court judge, one magistrate elected by an association of judges and magistrates, the attorney general, two advocates (one female and one male), one nominee of the Public Service Commission, two lay members of the public (one female and one male), and the chief registrar, who serves as the secretary. The commission reviews and makes recommendations on conditions of judicial service and the staff of the judiciary, including appointments. It also investigates complaints against judicial officers and staff, trains judicial staff, and advises the national government on administrative issues for the judiciary.
The Superior Council of the Judiciary was reformed in 2011 to expand its authority and include non-judges. The king presides over the council and appoints its twenty members. These include judges from the court of cassation, the court of appeals, the first-instance courts, the attorney general, the president of the National Council of Human Rights, the mediator of the kingdom, and five non-judge members. The council is charged with managing the judiciary, including judicial appointments, promotion, and discipline.
The Supreme Judicial Council is responsible for appointing and managing the careers of judges and investigating alleged misconduct. The council reviews draft legislation concerning the courts and has some judicial management responsibilities. The council is chaired by the president of the court of cassation and its members include the attorney general, the president of the Cairo Court of Appeal, the two most senior vice presidents of the court of cassation, and the two most senior presidents of the other courts of appeal. Egypt also has a separate state council for the administrative court system.
The Judicial Council of Jordan consists of eleven judges holding senior positions in its court hierarchy as well as the attorney general to the court of cassation, the most senior inspector of the ordinary courts, and the secretary general of the ministry of justice. The council approves the judicial selections made by the ministry of justice and, based upon reports from the ministry of justice, transfers and promotes judges. The president of the council supervises and issues disciplinary warnings to judges; the Judicial Inspection Service of the ministry of justice issues reports on disciplinary issues.
The Dutch Council for the Judiciary is an intermediary body that mediates between the political system and the judiciary. It has three to five members who are tasked with personnel management and appointment policy, policymaking, judicial administration, and operational issues (such as housing, safety, automation), as well as the budgetary process and the distribution of funds.
The Supreme Judicial Council handles personnel management and selection policy and provides advice to the ministry of justice. The council manages quality, automation, budgets, and discipline and has the power to propose judicial candidates, promotions, transfers, and training.
The National Council of the Judiciary helps select judges and reviews complaints about judicial conduct. The council’s recommendations for judicial appointments are referred to the president for approval. Members of the National Council of the Judiciary include representatives of the president, the minister of justice, members of parliament, the first president of the supreme court, the first president of the supreme administrative court and fifteen judges appointed to four-year terms. Before 2017, these fifteen judges were selected by members of the judiciary; now the parliament elects the council’s judicial members.
The Superior Council of the Magistracy oversees the careers of magistrates (judges and prosecutors). Its decisions are posted on its website and hearings are recorded and sometimes broadcast by the government’s radio channel. The superior council is responsible for the recruitment, appointment, evaluation, and discipline of judges.
In 1975, Sweden created the Dolmstolsverket, or Court Administration Agency, an administrative body headed by a director general. The agency has an executive board with four judges (two district court presidents and two appeals court presidents), two members of parliament, one lawyer and two union representatives. It is responsible for administrative tasks such as creating the judiciary’s budget, distributing funds, overseeing personnel and training, court management, automation, recruitment, and appointment.
Brazil created the National Council of Justice by constitutional amendment in 2004 to eliminate corruption in the judiciary. The council has fifteen members who are responsible for disciplinary proceedings against members of the judiciary and for compiling and publishing statistics on the Brazilian court system. Members of the council include judges, the general public, and lawyers.
The Canadian Judicial Council was created in 1971. The council has forty-one members consisting of the chief justices and associate chief justices of the provincial and federal superior courts; it is chaired by the chief justice of the supreme court. The full council meets twice a year to discuss relevant issues and may establish working groups to address emerging and ongoing concerns. The council has the authority to investigate complaints against members of the judiciary and can make recommendations to the minister of justice, including for the removal of a judge.
The Judicial Conference of the United States is responsible for setting national administrative policy for the federal courts. It is not considered a judicial council but has some similar duties. The conference approves appropriation requests for submission to Congress and recommends changes in rules of procedure to the Supreme Court. Judicial Conference committees oversee a range of policy and administrative issues including budget, judicial security, information technology, and conduct and disability. The Chief Justice of the United States is the presiding officer and members include the chief judge of each judicial circuit, the chief judge of the Court of International Trade, and a district judge from each regional judicial circuit.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has identified seven recommendations to enhance the independence and accountability of judicial councils:
- Strengthen institutional capacity.
- Create a framework for ensuring member accountability.
- Train council members.
- Ensure the transparency of procedures and activities.
- Increase cooperation with the judiciary.
- Insulate the council from political influence.
- Engage with civil society.